We have all witnessed the introduction of performance enhancing technologies across a number of sports and one element is constant – it invokes a whole lot of conjecture. Sometimes referred to as technological doping, performance enhancing footwear and clothing can create significant assistance and advantage. While these developments are often hailed as game changing when approved for use on the international stage, is it equally good decision making to allow these technologies to flow on and be used freely across all lower levels of sport and in competition?
How might performance enhancing technologies be allowed at an elite level
create issues at non-elite levels and the sport overall?
Where should sports draw the line on technological advancement or enhancement?
To illustrate the many considerations decision makers need to take into account when considering regulating performance enhancing technology in sport, I’m taking a magnifying glass to a sport I’m involved with and technology I have experience with. That is, athletics and “performance enhancing” running shoes (commonly referred to as “super shoes”). I’ll start by taking a look at the sport itself, the technology in question and the international bodies’ stance before taking a look at what this highlights for every sport.
Athletics and Performance Enhancing Running Shoes
There are a number of big running events unfolding this month and next both internationally and across Australia. The World Athletics Championships is just around the corner followed by the Commonwealth Games shortly after. Closer to home, Mackay, Queensland played host to the 2022 Oceania Athletics Area Championships in early June, and as this article is published, all going to plan, I will have run along with thousands of other runners to compete in the Gold Coast Marathon in Queensland, which will also double as the Oceania Area Marathon Championships. Last month, on 15 June, we also saw the launch of a new “super shoe” – Nike’s Air Zoom Alphafly Next% 2 (Nike Alphafly 2), which builds and improves on the Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next% (Nike Alphafly) discussed in this article. These shoes are specifically designed for marathon and long distance running.
At the elite international competition events, every athlete competing will be wearing some kind of “super shoe”. Essentially, these shoes help athletes run faster for longer. In any road race in Australia, even including many “Fun Runs”, just about every reasonably serious athlete will be wearing some version of super shoe, with the vast majority wearing a version of either the Nike Alphafly or Nike Vaporfly. The reality is, it’s almost impossible to be competitive if you’re not wearing a super shoe when almost every other athlete is.
With athletics and running super shoes taking centre-stage at the moment, it seems a perfect time to consider how these super shoes are impacting on the sport of running at the elite and sub-elite levels, and to reflect on how the lessons learned from these super shoes will be relevant to other sports.
The Performance Enhancing Technology
To provide some context, performance enhancing shoes have been around in professional road racing since about 2016 when Nike launched the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% (Nike Vaporfly), the shoe which essentially revolutionised the sport. Since then we have seen other running shoe brands follow suit, releasing their own “super shoes” including:
- the Adidas Adizero Adios Pro 2 (I personally use this alongside the Nike Alphafly);
- the Adidas Adizero Prime X (a shoe which breaches the World Athletics rules on shoe specifications, discussed further below);
- the Asics Metaspeed Sky;
- the Hoka Carbon X3;
- the New Balance RC Elite 2; and
- the Puma Deviate Nitro Elite.
Nike also developed a prototype shoe in conjunction with world record holder in the marathon, Eliud Kipchoge, as part of a project to get Kipchoge to become the first man to run a sub-2 hour marathon (which Kipchoge went on to achieve in the Nike Alphafly prototype). This later led to the release of the Nike Alphafly, which is the commercially available version of the shoe worn by Kipchoge to run a sub-2 hour marathon. Some years later Nike released the Vaporfly Next% 2 (Nike Vaporfly 2).
Both men’s and women’s world records for the main endurance running events from 5km up to the marathon, have been obliterated in these “super shoes”. The times of the top 50 elite marathon runners (in both male and female competition) have improved during this period by about 2%+. Meanwhile, only a small number of world records in sprints and middle-distance running have been broken in the same period.
The Nike Vaporfly combined technologies that were already available in the shoes of other brands, but it did so in an innovative manner that created a significant performance advantage and with improvements in the foam used and the design of the carbon fibre plates used. The Nike Vaporfly 4% was so named because it had been tested by Nike as improving performance (measured by energy return) in distance racing by 4% (by reducing energy consumption) compared to conventional running shoes. This equates to a potential 3.4% improvement in marathon times for elite athletes running at marathon world record pace. This has been achieved through its combination of a carbon fibre plate and ZoomX foam which provides a significant energy return to the runner leading to improved running economy.
Since 2016 Nike has developed their technology further, and currently the two biggest road running shoes are the Nike Vaporfly Next% 2 and the Nike Alphafly (although this will soon be overtaken by the Nike Alphafly 2). In track racing similar “super shoes” also hit the market in 2019. As mentioned above, in the coming months we will start to see more athletes in Australia wearing the Nike Alphafly 2.
I have personally experienced the significant benefits of super shoes myself, with an improvement in my marathon time of about 22 minutes wearing my Nike Alphafly shoes as compared to my previous marathon in ordinary runners. While the improvement certainly cannot be put solely down to my different shoes, I can absolutely feel the significant difference between when I’m wearing them and when I’m not, and I am sure that the shoes improved my time by at least several minutes.
International Competition Rules and Regulations
With super shoes advancing, in June 2020, World Athletics set up what they named the ‘Working Group on Athletic Shoes’, which replaced the “Assistance Review Group”. The Working Group on Athletic Shoes is responsible for determining the rules and regulations for shoes in athletics. It includes representatives from six of the major running shoe manufacturers.
Following the inception of the Working Group, updated guidance on footwear was provided in August 2020, and since then there have been further updates which build on previous regulations, such as limitations on sole thickness and the number of rigid structures allowed within the shoe. Accessibility was also an important issue dealt with by the regulations, with limitations placed on the use of “Development Shoes” that are not readily available for purchase. The Working Group brought in specific rules for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and upon that announcement the World Athletics CEO explained, “The major and central issue the Working Group on Athletic Shoes had been exploring is a long-term sustainable and implementable solution for athletic shoes which balances innovation and fairness.”
The World Athletics Regulations state that they intended to balance the following principles:
- Fairness within athletics;
- Health and safety;
- Performance in Athletics are achieved through the primacy of human endeavour over technology in Athletic Shoes and advances in the same; and
- Acknowledging that Athletes wish to compete in “high quality”, “innovative” and “leading” athletic shoes.
While these are the stated principles behind the World Athletics Regulations, with the presence of representatives of the major shoe companies in the Working Group and the dramatic improvements that have been seen in athletics since these shoes have become available, it’s questionable whether in fact the regulations actually achieve the appropriate balance. The regulations, which were updated again in December 2021 for 2022, place limits on the thickness of the sole of running shoes. The technical requirements set out maximum thickness, by event. For example:
- For track events up to but not including the 800m, the maximum sole thickness is 20mm;
- For track events 800m and above the maximum sole thickness is 25mm; and
- For road events the maximum sole thickness is 40mm.
The regulations also maintain limits on the number of rigid structures such as carbon fibre plates, amongst other things.
Source: World Athletics Regulations
The World Para Athletics (WPA) Rules and Regulations 2020-2021 followed which state that “The purpose of shoes for competition is to give protection and stability to the feet and a firm grip on the ground. They must not give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage.”
The regulations go further stating that shoes “may be customised to suit the characteristics of a particular athlete’s foot. However, one-off shoes made to order (i.e. that are only ones of their kind) are not permitted.”
If there is reason to believe that the shoe may not comply with the rules and regulations, WPA “may refer the shoe or shoe technology for detailed examination and it may prohibit the use of such shoes or technology in competition pending examination.” This demonstrates the seriousness with which World Para Athletics treats the issue of performance enhancing technologies and the importance of ensuring an equal playing field.
Source: World Para Athletics
While these rules are at an international competition level, what do clubs, competition organisers and the sport collectively need to consider when determining whether to apply the regulations (or even stricter regulations)?
Should what is considered permitted technology on an international level be permitted for use in all other levels of competition in the sport?
Can we even be confident that the current regulations for elite international competition are achieving the correct balance at that level?
Performance Enhancing Technology Considerations
If contemplating whether performance enhancing products should be allowed, or to allow for there to be a balance between innovation and fairness, all sports, their clubs and competition organisers will need to consider the following:
- Accessibility barrier
- Comparison variables
- Human Performance vs Innovation
To ensure fairness in the sport, barriers to access must be taken into account that relate to:
- Number of shoes available – Is there a limited run of the shoe in each size or region? Does an athlete have access to a development shoe?
- Sponsor obligations – Are athletes limited in their choice of shoe because sponsorship deals prevent them from running in the brand which has the better shoe?
- Cost – Is the cost prohibitive? For example, super shoes are currently more expensive than other purpose-designed shoes, at around $300+.
While performance enhancing technology is great on a number of levels, it only assists those who have access.
Ask: If one competitor accesses the next level of competition with this technology while another does not have access, is this outcome the result of human performance or due to their access to innovation?
Where performance enhancing technology has been adopted, this can make comparing the performance of athletes from different generations problematic. As an example, in the early 2000’s super swimming suits were worn. While they were eventually banned, numerous records were set in these swimming suits, which makes it impossible to compare previous generations’ athletes with athletes competing after the ban, or against those who competed prior to it.
Ask: If this technology is permitted, how will it impact performance goal setting and record holding?
Human performance or innovation
The inclusion of some performance enhancing products or solutions can lead to questioning whether athlete performance is more about technological innovation than human endeavour. At some point technological enhancement arguably strays into the territory of technological doping, when it provides an unfair advantage.
Ask: Will it be that the best athlete wins?
The Impact for Sponsored Athletes
At the Boston Marathon in 2020 one of the biggest races in the world for road running, the fastest time by both the US male athlete and US female athlete, was run wearing Nike Alphafly. Both athletes achieved a personal best time in the race, and not having been able to wear them previously due to the terms of their respective sponsorship agreements, had ended previous contracts (presumably at least in part) to be free to wear the Nike Alphafly.
When technology is so advanced that everyone wants to be wearing the same super shoes because they are seen as being the best or most innovative, then this will result in the brand not having to pay athletes as much to attract them, or potentially not sponsor them at all. This creates a disadvantage for athletes in that it can drive down how much they are able to earn from sponsorship.
While the desire to win is the goal, technology like this can create genuine dilemmas. If athletes are not earning any money (or as much money) from sponsorships, this potentially inhibits their ability to train as freely as they would with the financial support of sponsorships.
Determining if the Balance is Right
If individuals are able to use technology like super shoes at a local or amateur level, does this have the potential to knock out up and coming, equally high-performing and capable athletes that may not be using this technology?
Consider Australian Olympian Sinead Diver who came to running late in life. She began running as a 33 year old after the birth of her second child, after taking part in a fun run and discovering she had a natural talent for the sport. After competing in her first marathon 4 years later, she came in as the second fastest female. After breaking world records for over 40’s, and coming in 5th place in the New York Marathon, at 44, she represented Australia in the 2020 Olympics. She was the oldest athletic competitor ever on the Australian team and came in 10th place, the fastest Australian in the event. In fact, Sinead Diver is Australia’s most successful marathoner since Commonwealth Games legend, Steve Moneghetti.
Imagine if it were today that Sinead was running in her first running race or event. In regular running shoes, while other more experienced or competitive runners were all wearing super shoes. Would she have been discovered?
And, given that these performance enhancing technologies can be prohibitively expensive, could we be at risk of missing talent in sports of all kinds at the grassroots level because we don’t have our own rules and regulations about when and how these technologies should be allowed?
For those who do not have access to, knowledge about or the ability to afford to buy such expensive shoes, given that they would not be able to compete with athletes wearing high performance shoes, do we need further regulations for super shoes?
With most local events following the rules and regulations of World Athletics and World Para Athletics which allow access to super shoes, is it right that one junior runner competing with $300+ high performance running shoes with an indisputable edge, wins ahead of another junior runner that does not?
If performance enhancing technologies are permitted across all levels of sport, we need to ask these questions:
- Does the use of this technology at any level of our sport create unfair assistance or advantage?
- Should these products be permitted at all levels of competition, or only some?
- What could the long-term consequences be for our club?
- What could the long-term consequences be for our sport?
Conversations about performance enhancing technology in sport are not easy, but should be had. In the years ahead we will see continued advances in clothing, footwear and other supporting technologies and decisions will need to be made to ensure the talent pool, integrity and future of our sports are not compromised.
Article by Alexandria Anthony
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